Saturday, 17 April 2010

What's in a Name?

Nothing. Nada, niet, zilch, zero, zip.

That's all, really. I wanted to say something about Ian McEwan or Martin Amis or Graham Swift, or Zadie Smith - or even why I've decided I love Jeanette Winterson. But they're too easy targets. So I'll have t piece together an argument from the start.

And it starts in many places.

It starts with the wonderful world of independent literature - the fantastic small presses, cool shops, salons, scenes within scenes that are springing up.

It starts with Katie Price and Martine McCutheon, and "celebriterature"

It starts with the fact that we don't have an aplication or submission process at Year Zero.

And it starts with Haruki Murakami.

I love Murakami. So do hundreds of thousands of others. My bodily fluids are in disarray at the thought of 1Q84 arriving in translation. If I met him I'd probably faint.

It really starts with WHY I love Haruki Murakami. I love him, you see, because he wrote "Again and again I called out fro Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place" and I cried for about 10 minutes afterwards. I love him because he wrote a scene about a woman, stuck on a ferris wheel, who looks into the window of an apartment and sees herself, commiting acts she could never imagine, and that scene changed the way I write forever.

I equally love Penny Goring because she wrote the line "You find me at night when I’m trying to sleep and tell me all about why you can’t stay."

And that's the point I'm making. I love people who do amazing things with words. Rather, I love the amazing things they do with words (there are many other thigs I love about Penny, of course, but they have to do withthe fact it's my privilege to know her).

But the more I see of even the Indiest of the Indie world of publishing, the more I realise how uncommon that is. We all have heroes, of course. I guess we do, anyway. But the literary world (and I know it's not alone) is full of a certain kind of adulation that I really don't like. An adulation for names. A deferentiality - be it for Zadie Smith or David Vann or whoever. And it goes hand in hand with a derogation of Katie Price and Martine McCutcheon, and I am left in a state fo constant bewilderment that no one sees the contradiction.

Much of the literary world, it sems to me, is all about names. It's about clubbiness and cliquiness. About liking the right thing and disliking the right thing - about thinking (tired and overused example, sorry, but it's been a long week and I'm tired and overused) John Diamond was a brave man chronicling his demise and Jade Goody was an attention-crazy slapper. About whom you've met, whom you've heard, how famuos your guests are, who retweets you, who says hi to you down the pub. And frankly, I find the whole thing utterly nauseating.

We had a Year Zero gig this week (still waiting a coupla piccies before I write it up). We held it at the OVADA Gallery in Oxford, a project run largely by unpaid staff and directors to bring the arts into the community, against a backdrop of a fantastic exhibition called Hidden Voice, put on by young carers from the county. It was the best gig I've ever been to, with 40 or 50 of the loveliest people I've met in a long long time. It came about purely by chance when a friend pointed me to an exhibition there, and I got chatting to the curator and said do you ever do literary nights, and two weeks later we were doing one. She didn't know me from Adam but she had a read fo some of our stuff, and circulated their mailing list, advertised on the Arts council website, gotus a slot on local radio, made our ragtag group feel, in short, welcome. Part of a bigger picture in which we're all doing the same thing - trying to build a world with more art in it.

Why mention the fact we don't have a submission pocedure at Year Zero? Well, it sounds rather clubby and cliquy, that's why. But it's not. It's simply that we do a certain kind of thing and - without giving away too many details - rather a lot of us are rather damaged so we need to have a safe space to do it in. Think of us like a band - you wouldn't say a band was a clique just because they don't let every bass player play bass for them. I HOPE we do everything we can to encourage others doing the kind of thing we're doing, and to share what we've learned. I'm sure we could do more, but I hope that's through lack of resource not lack of willing.

We called our gig on Wednesday "Open-armed and Outcast", and the more I think about it the more important that description feels. There is a whole world in the arts that's about belonging in the "in crowd" - and for me it's even more distasteful and prevalent in the allegedly indie scene, where it's mixed with a cultural snobbery.

There are all sorts of debates to be had about filtering and gatekeeping, of course, and how it can ever be possible to read everything out there and give stuff a chance, but I want to make a very simple, very plain point. It's cool to like great writing. It's cool to have something move you to tears or laughter or despair or exhilaration and to tell teh world how great it is - whether it be by Zadie Smith or Jane Unknown or, yes, by J K Rowling. It is NOT cool to like something because it is by Zadie Smith, or to tell people you had Zadie Smith giving a lecture in your store whilst you hide the fact embarrassedly that you also had Jane Unknown. And it is VERY NOT COOL to say something's crap because it was written by J K Rowling.

I have met a lot of wonderful people in the publishing industry since I joined Year Zero (I don't actually think I've met anyone from the industry who isn't really nice), but my experience has done nothing but confirm why I want to have nothing to do with that industry.

In short.
What's in a name? Absolutely nothing.
What's in a word? Absolutely everything.


  1. This is just the hipster in you, Dan. We've got to have our underground and our unknowns, maybe because we hate the man, but also because we know it's mostly a sham anyway. And when we love the man, we hate the man, and it's, like, SO ironic.

    I think it's unbelievably cool to be completely yourself. The quirks of each other, these weird niches we're into, are so much cooler than being "cool". Hopefully I'm making Lawrence and Hardy cool for some people; they really deserve it. We can leave the names alone and go for what makes us feel.

  2. I think you've put your finger on something very astute about the British psyche in that first para.

    What drives me nuts is people who are so proud of the fact they're Indie and drop names of people they know or like to make themselves sound cool - it's one thing I love about Eric and Kristin at The Indie Handbook - they just write about what they love & don't care what people think.

    What makes me equally do my nut is the people who think it's smart to snark at celebs or anything popular. Yes, I think Digital Fortress was awful, but I spent two afternoons of innocent pleasure with Angels & Demons. I'll sing along to Wonderwall, and I really rather like Harry Potter and much Tracey Emin, and there are people who will turn their nosesup at me just because I mentioned those names.

    "We can leave the names alone and go for what makes us feel" - Exactly

  3. Bravo. And it just was about that time that this needed to be said.

  4. YES YES YES YES YES! I'm going to come back and say more than YES when I'm a little more awake.

  5. "Transparency is the new objectivity" is a great sound bite from David Weinberger - if your aim is to be transparent, it removes some of the need to blow your own horn. If indies share their passion and do so transparently, they can retain their hipster status, I suppose :)

  6. I think it's a fallacy to say that people say, "Mr. Blah sucks" just because it's the cool thing to say. I hate loads of writers (Milton, Hemingway, etc) despite the fact that it is not cool to hate them. I hate them anyway because I don't give a shite. I also like loads of writers who it's cool to hate (Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, etc).

    What's more likely is that certain celebrity "writers" actually do suck and it's probably a healthy sign that some people don't let publishers "get away" with passing these people off as literary greatness.

    Our culture is so shallow and it looks like it's getting worse. If there weren't people out there engaging in what you think of us begrudgery in saying that Mrs. Chick-Lit sucks, we'd all be forced to go along with the charade of pretending it's literary greatness.

    Except me. I'll continue to hate Jane Austen no matter who tries to convince me she's a genius.

  7. @Marcella, I will always admire you for your love of DBC Pierre. For me what makes a culture shallow is anyone who either claims to like or to dislike something without thinking whether or not they actually do. You'll never be guilty of that. Sadly, in the last few months since I've got out and met people in the literary business, I've met more than one or two people who are more concerned with saying the right things in the right places than with engaging their brains. Which is why I'd rather hang out with you than them.

    @Piers - the problem is, of course, that the moment one is reflectively transparent one isn't transparent at all, which is an age-old irony. The only way I really know is to write what I have to write and say what I have to say - and that's another reason why I'd never cope with a publisher should any be daft enough to take an interest in my work.

  8. Feel exactly the same as you about the OVADA night, Dan - a magical night, one to remember for the rest of our lives. It's a privilege to know the people who were there. And it's a sad reality, but even ex-Authonomites can be 'clubby and cliquey'. As someone who's unpopular at the moment I feel this acutely at times - we all need to make that effort to be open and outward-looking. As you put it in that brilliant title: Open-armed and Outcast!

  9. So glad you felt the same, Larry. It was so great to meet Terry, as well - and incredible of him to come all that way (likewise you!). It was super taking Heikki round the place on Friday as well. Gosh, yes, it's so easy to think of Authonomy or equivalent places as the horizon of our world. I think the key is there's nothing wrong with having a fixed(ish) and stable core of people who are working on similar things (the band analogy) but we just have to keep on looking around us and going out of our way to meet new people and see what we can learn from each other, and what we can do for each other - otherwise it's not just us as individuals who go stale, but the world as a whole.

  10. I like the band analogy - we want to work together like a band, not hold together like a political faction, or an exclusive club. Open borders.

  11. @Dan - no, it's just hipster. I'm talking about American Hipsters there, a troupe I am not ashamed to admit to being part of.

    @Marcella - I hate Jane Austen too.

  12. @Larry - exactly - and one of the exciting things about the coming year is the number of things taking shape where we're working with other groups and individuals

    @Sarah/Marcella - I like Northanger Abbey - it's got a gothic thing going, but I was always a Bronte person - especially Anne as a person, Charlotte as a writer

  13. I feel I should mention that I like the band analogy as well. We're like a band and then sometimes we play with other bands or jam with other musicians.

  14. You say it for me, and I'm sure for many of us in the indie world, Dan. We ARE a band, a weird sort of band, but a band nevertheless. May we grow from strength to strength.